Premature Autopsies, Overdue Celebration: Mulgrew Miller and Hand in Hand
Update: Early this morning, official word arrived, via a forwarded e-mail message sent to William Paterson University jazz students by David Demsey, the coordinator of the Jazz Studies Program there, that Mulgrew Miller has in fact left the planet. After providing the best possible medical care they could, his family made the decision to remove the ventilator that was keeping him alive on Tuesday evening. He died overnight. All the other commentary you see below remains true. You can learn more about Miller’s life through Nate Chinen’s New York Times obituary. And, if so inclined, you can listen to his trio—with bassist Ivan Taylor and drummer Rodney Green—recorded live at the Kennedy Center’s Jazz Club on NPR’s Jazz Set.
Yesterday, around 1:30 p.m., Central Daylight Time, I started seeing indications (from unofficial sources) that the pianist Mulgrew Miller had died at the age of 57. Having read other reports last week that he had suffered a stroke and was in intensive care, I didn’t find the news surprising. It did seem suspect, however, in that the source of the news was a Facebook posting for a jazz Web site whose proprietors shouldn’t have had an inside track on matters concerning Miller. It turns out, though, that that site’s announcement and other assessments of Miller’s life and work in the past tense have been premature. Thus, this post, originally drafted to eulogize Miller, is now a celebration of his life and work.
To put things most simply, Miller is a musician who has made an invaluable contribution to every recording on which he performed as a leader or sideman in a career spanning nearly four decades. From early work with Woody Shaw and Art Blakey to his late 1980s recording with Cassandra Wilson and others alongside his position as pianist in the Tony Williams Quintet through the early 1990s to his recordings as a leader for Landmark, Novus and MaxJazz, among others, his is a body of work that is always tasteful, inventive and remarkably inobtrusive. In addition to his work as a performer, he has also directly touched the lives of budding jazz performers as the director of the Jazz Studies program at William Paterson University for most of the last decade.
Born in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1955, he became part of the generation-spanning, retrospectively dubbed “Memphis mafia,” a group of pianists inspired by Phineas Newborn Jr. that includes Harold Mabern, the late James Williams, and Donald Brown. Although I probably first became aware of Miller when listening to Cassandra Wilson’s Blue Skies (1988) and Tony Williams’s Angel Street (1989), I really started to understand his stature and significance when I became more deeply involved with the jazz scene in New York in the 1990s. I finally met him in person at one of his gigs at the now-defunct Sweet Basil in September of 1994, where he played his Wingspan (1987) material with an ensemble named for the album. That evening, Wingspan consisted of alto saxophonist Antonio Hart, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, bassist Richie Goods and drummer Tony Reedus—the latter the nephew of James Williams, whom I also met then. In conversation between the second and third sets, Hart responded to a compliment about his playing by saying that the praise was misplaced and that he was still getting acquainted with the music, adding, “You can’t play bebop-style on these tunes.” By that he meant, partly, that as a soloist and ensemble member a player couldn’t simply run the changes: he’d have to understand the pieces as compositions rather than chord progressions with throwaway melodies on top. (A fuller description of that evening’s performance concludes chapter 7 of Blowin’ the Blues Away, pp. 196–204.) That assessment held as true for items from Wingspan—like “One’s Own Room” and “Soul-Leo”—as it did for those from Hand in Hand (1992). More specifically, Hart might have said that the prominence in those tunes of (mostly) singable melodies, black gospel-derived harmonies, long ostinato-based passages and light Brazilian rhythms and ensemble textures might make some listeners think otherwise. For performers, however, each of those elements became something else that they had to take account of in crafting their solos and responding to the other musicians as a tune proceeded.
A good example of that process working out is “Return Trip” from Hand in Hand. On its surface, the tune is two iterations of a sixteen-bar idea, itself two eight-bar phrases yoked together. But that simple formal design masks a harmonic challenge: a progression that moves less in terms of cadence-directed motion and more in terms of localized, subtle shifts juxtaposed with more jarring ones. If you follow the succession of solos by Nelson, Miller, and tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, however, the composition, whose melody and harmonies seem present throughout as a guide, presents no apparent challenge. The featured soloists respond as much to it as they and the other performers do to one another. Note in particular, the way that each of them uses sequential patterns, over-the-barline phrasing and anticipatory phrasing—e.g., playing pitches that belong to a succeeding harmony before it arrives—to great effect.
Likewise, Hand in Hand’s 20-bar, AABBA selection “Leilani’s Leap,” “an endeavor to portray the vivaciousness” of Miller’s then five-year-old daughter (according to the pianist’s liner notes), has contours similar to “Return Trip.” Miller’s solo on that track is a testament to his skill and taste: but for the fact that his solo is slightly longer than the others, one would be hard-pressed to identify him as the session’s leader. His playing isn’t flashy or otherwise demonstrative. It just fits, leaving a subtle but unmistakeable impression. Because of those two tracks—plus “Neither Here nor There,” “Hand in Hand,” and “Grew’s Tune—Hand in Hand is the album that I recommend without reservation whenever someone asks me what my favorite jazz recording of the 1990s is. Over the disc’s running time, moreover, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Lewis Nash gelled so well with Miller that they became, for a time, one of the most solid rhythm-sections-for-hire—check out what they did as a unit, for example, on the second disc of Joe Lovano’s Quartets: Live at the Village Vanguard (1995). In addition to the musicians already mentioned, Hand in Hand features trumpeter Eddie Henderson and alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, and Miller clearly conceived the original-composition based (save Donald Brown’s “Waltz for Monk”) sessions with the sounds that ensemble might create in mind, e.g., “Return Trip” and album opener “Grew’s Tune.” Indeed, Miller devotes his liner notes to praising those players rather than detailing his approach to album or inspirations for the compositions. For all his humility, he also possesses a dry and endearing wit, both in conversation and in music. To this day, I always crack up when I hear what he did at the end of the second-chorus bridge of an otherwise melancholy and reflective (reharmonized) ballad take on “Body and Soul” from 1994’s With Our Own Eyes (from about 4:38 forward).
Understated, generous, witty, and authoritative in the best possible sense: that’s how I always think of Mulgrew Miller. The recordings I’ve mentioned here as well as many others give some indication of the kind of person and performer he is. In the current celebrity-obsessed media climate, a performer like him is too easily ignored by those who fetishize youth, novelty and ersatz vanguardism. Like Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, Jaki Byard, Dannie Richmond and countless others, though, players like Miller keep the jazz world lively and vibrant without making the spotlight the primary objective. Other dimensions of his being emerge from what is probably the most viewed clip featuring him on YouTube, one wherein he explains what solo jazz improvisation is, and its companion, in which he discusses the intricate demands of accompanying other performers. In the happy event that he recovers from the stroke he suffered last week and performs and/or records again, don’t miss the chance to see him. And, no matter what, don’t deprive yourself of any opportunity to hear him on record. He made his way back to the stage after another stroke a few years ago, and I’m hoping along with a number of others that he will again.